Living Three Generations Beneath a Murderer

I have anxiety; I have depression. My life isn’t easy, and maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe I deserve it.” The crush of living a life preyed upon by a ghost from generations yore…

by Allie Burke

I listen to “Clair de Lune” sometimes. It’s a classic piano piece written by Claude Debussy in 1890. The song shares its title with a poem by Paul Verlaine. The poem begins with the words “your soul is a select landscape” and goes on to explain the place where the soul lives:

All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight…

“Clair de Lune” has been used in various art forms, including the film Twilight, and is referenced throughout history. It is also the song, in July 1942, that my great-grandfather played in a San Leandro hotel room when he killed his lover.

His name was Leslie Gireth, and he was known as the Red Carnation Murderer before he died. He was a successful jeweler and Chamber of Commerce director in Glendale, California when he got involved with a young woman named Doreena Hammer. Gireth was married with two children. He and Hammer were romantically embroiled in a relationship that ended tragically. In a hotel room, Gireth shot Hammer while “Clair de Lune” was playing. He left a vase of red carnations next to the bed where Hammer lay lifeless.

There is much speculation around why Gireth did it. Some say Hammer was about to get married. In my family, the understanding is that the act was a suicide pact, but that Gireth never went through with his end of the bargain.

After murdering Hammer, Gireth drove for a while until he got to Fresno. He then called the police and turned himself in. He pled guilty and refused counsel. He wrote a letter to the court, in which he requested to be executed.

“There never was a gentler, friendlier, more cultured or better-behaved prisoner on Death Row than Leslie B. Gireth,” wrote Clinton T. Duffy, Warden of San Quentin. On Monday, January 25, 1943, Gireth died in the gas chamber just after writing a letter thanking Warden Clinton T. Duffy “for everything” and listening to “Clair de Lune” in his cell.



I’ve heard that Hammer’s family has suffered greatly throughout the years, and I feel for them deep in my heart.

Everyone is always shocked to find out that I am the great-granddaughter of the Red Carnation Murderer. It scares them a little bit, I think. And according to what they say in my family, it should. We have a saying in my family called the Gireth blood. If someone does something wrong or acts in an inappropriate way, it’s the Gireth blood. Not everyone in my family has the Gireth blood. I do.

I used to see a vibrational therapist, better known as an energy doctor. He told me that the ghost of Leslie Gireth was trying to get to me. Trying to corrupt me. And that he would have, if it weren’t for my dad. My dad, who has protected me his whole life. If I didn’t have him, the Gireth blood, and Leslie Gireth himself, would have put their claws around me and carried me down with them.

I do have paranoid schizophrenia. Though I know it’s partly genetic (there are two members of my family, one on each side, who also live with the disorder), I sometimes wonder if it’s my punishment. For being — although distantly, three generations distantly — associated with someone who murdered a woman who had her whole life ahead of her. I hear voices and see things. I go around thinking people are trying to poison me most of the time. I have anxiety; I have depression. My life isn’t easy, and maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe I deserve it.

Capital punishment was legal in California until Governor Newsom suspended executions as of March 2019. As part of his action, San Quentin, where my great-grandfather was imprisoned, was closed. The last execution in California took place in 2006.  What if executions had been suspended back in 1943? What if Gireth lived to be eighty? I wouldn’t have been born yet, but his sons could have visited him. His grandchildren. My mother. They could have had closure. My grandfather, for why on earth his father would do something like this, and my mother, for why her father was the way he was. It wouldn’t be much consolation, but it would be something. Not just what the media told them.

I listen to “Clair de Lune” sometimes. It is a beautiful song, but for me and my family, it is more than that. I try to understand what he thought in those last hours. If he was sad. Or if he was smiling, because he would soon have victorious love with his Doreena again.

Maybe it was a suicide pact after all.

 

Allie Burke is an author, activist, and corporate professional from Los Angeles. She loves pineapples and has way too many animals to feed. Visit Allie at http://transcendariemanuscript.com

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